The Antiwar Candidate
John Kerry began his political career as an antiwar activist and at heart he remains one still.
by William Kristol      Weekly Standard     08/16/2004

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EVERYONE KNOWS that John Kerry is ambivalent about the war in Iraq.  In fact, he's so ambivalent that he won't say anything more definite about whether or not we should have gone to war than that, as president, he "might" have done so.  Nor will he say what his plan is for the future, though he claims to have one.  But Kerry doesn't mind being thought ambivalent about Iraq.  The American people, after all, are ambivalent about Iraq, too.  But what John Kerry does not want the American people to know is that he is also ambivalent about the war on terror in general.

Consider his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.  He concedes that "we are a nation at war," engaged in a "global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before."  Yet, despite the radical dissimilarity of this enemy to previous ones, here's how Kerry says he will fight this war: "As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war."  That is, with the lessons he learned in Vietnam.

But Kerry's lessons are not, strictly speaking, lessons learned in war.  They are instead the conclusions drawn by the antiwar movement about American foreign policy in reaction to Vietnam.  They presumably are somewhat less extreme than the critique Kerry presented in his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony in April 1971, when he spoke of the 200,000 Vietnamese a year "murdered" by the United States, and when he said he had seen "America lose its sense of morality."  But it is clear Kerry sees today's war on terror through the lens of the antiwar movement he helped to lead three decades ago upon his return from combat.

"Lesson one" in Kerry's speech, therefore, is that a "real and imminent" threat is "the only justification for going to war."  Presumably there was no such threat in Vietnam--and thus we should not have fought there.  But can we afford to act in the war on terror only when the threat is "imminent"?  Is it not necessary to take action against al Qaeda before it strikes?  Kerry's antiwar activism has so shaped his thinking that he doesn't want to confront the fact that preemptive action may sometimes be necessary in this war.

Now, it is true that Kerry tries to assure us in his convention speech that he "will never hesitate to use force when it is required.  Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response."  But what does it say about a presidential candidate when he thinks it a show of strength to insist that he would actually respond to an attack on the United States?

Furthermore, Kerry suggested on CNN last week (in the spirit of the antiwar movement) that attacking terrorists can result in "actually encouraging the recruitment of terrorists."  One wonders whether a President Kerry wouldn't find reasons to hesitate in prosecuting the war on terror.

Or consider Kerry's remark that "we need to rebuild our alliances, so we can get the terrorists before they get us."  Do we really have to wait to "get the terrorists" until our alliances are rebuilt (whatever that means)?   Indeed, what terrorists aren't we "getting" because of alleged problems with allies right now?  And what of Kerry's statement last December that he would treat the United Nations as a "full partner" in the war on terror? Again, Kerry shows little evidence of having thought at all seriously about the nature of today's war on terror, and its implications for the use of force, for the limitations of international institutions, and the like.

And consider this: "Today, our national security begins with homeland security."  Doesn't it rather end with homeland security?  Surely our national security begins with dealing with terrorists far away, in their recruitment centers and training camps, and in dealing with the regimes that harbor, sponsor, and fund them.  But that would suggest reflecting on the lessons of our inaction during the 1990s vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and on what Bush did after 9/11.  But the words Afghanistan, Taliban, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden are nowhere to be found in Kerry's convention speech.  For President Bush, 9/11 is fundamental. For Kerry, Vietnam is decisive.

The truth is this: John Kerry began his political career as an antiwar activist.  He remained one through his Senate career, opposing President Reagan's efforts in Central America and the first Gulf War under the first President Bush.  And at heart he remains one still.  Kerry claims he wants to fight the war on terror.  But in key respects he still sounds more like a protester against, than a prosecutor of, the war on terror.